History Department
History Department

Brian P. Levack in WSJ: Five Best Books on Possession, Exorcism

Thu, August 15, 2013
Brian P. Levack in WSJ: Five Best Books on Possession, Exorcism
Prof. Brian P. Levack

Originally published July 19, 2013, in The Wall Street Journal.

1. The Devils of Loudun, by Aldous Huxley (1952)

This is Aldous Huxley's finest effort in nonfiction. Written more than 60 years ago, it remains the best narrative of the most famous case of demonic possession in European history. In 1632, Jeanne des Anges, the prioress of a cloistered convent in the French town of Loudun, and 16 nuns suffered contortions, performed feats of preternatural strength, uttered blasphemies and spoke in languages unknown to them. The nuns were subjected to a series of exorcisms, during which Urbain Grandier, a local priest known for his scandalous sexual conduct, was accused of having caused the nuns' possession by means of witchcraft and later was burned at the stake. Huxley's riveting account includes a portrait of Grandier that remains unmatched in the vast literature—really a study of the "cabal" of enemies who sought the priest's destruction. Huxley also describes the anguish of Father Jean-Joseph Surin, the Jesuit exorcist who came to believe that he was possessed by the same demons he had expelled from the nuns.

2. Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France, by Sarah Ferber (2004)

In this highly original study, Sarah Ferber provides a theoretical framework for understanding the hundreds of instances of possession reported in France in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Ferber relates this frenzy to the Catholic Church's encouragement of new forms of female spirituality, among other causes. Many of these cases originated, she argues, when pious young women, especially nuns, submitted themselves to demanding spiritual discipline in order to attain sainthood. Their ecstatic experiences often came to be read as demonic and some of the allegedly possessed women were suspected of being witches. Complicating all this, Ferber argues, was the power of public exorcisms as a display of the effectiveness of Catholic sacraments—an important propaganda weapon against Protestants during the Wars of Religion. No less noteworthy is the book's exposé of violence against female demoniacs by male exorcists, who claimed that they were beating only the Devil and not the women. Ferber's account of the death of a woman during an exorcism that took place in Australia in 1993 shows that the violent treatment of people suspected of demonic possession hasn't altogether disappeared in modern times.

3. Spirit Possession and Popular Religion, by Clarke Garrett (1987)

In this pathbreaking book, Clarke Garrett explains that in the 18th century the phenomenon of Protestant spirit possession, which could involve both good and evil spirits, occurred among French Huguenots, English Methodists, German Pietists and New England Shakers, all of whom shared the belief that God inspired people directly, giving them the gift of the spirit. Certain pious members of these denominations had ecstatic seizures and other symptoms that were seen as physical manifestations of their interior religious experiences. Vestiges of this religious enthusiasm can be found in the emotional evangelical revivals of the 19th century—but only in modern Pentecostal communities, the site of many possessions and exorcisms in recent times, do ecstatic outbursts closely resemble the behavior of Protestants during the time now known as the Age of Reason. In this richly detailed work Garrett propounds an intriguing view of spirit possession as a form of religious theater—a kind in which the possessed, whether aspiring saints or demoniacs, followed scripts encoded in their religious culture.

4. Inheriting Power, by Giovanni Levi (1988)

Levi tells the remarkable story of the career of Giovan Battista Chiesa, a parish priest in a rural village in northern Italy who exorcised hundreds of demoniacs in the late 17th century, purporting to rid them of physical and psychic afflictions. His exorcisms bore a strong resemblance to what we now call faith healing; Chiesa once claimed that sufferers who did not remain liberated after being exorcised "did not have faith in God." His career was cut short when a church court tried him in 1697 for failing to follow the official procedures for exorcism. Chiesa conducted exorcisms daily, owing his popularity to his peasant parishioners, men and women subject to chronic pain and illness and other problems, who believed that they had found in him a way to gain control over life's misfortunes.

5. Between Worlds, by J.H. Chajes (2003)

This fascinating book reveals that, as demonic possession reached epidemic proportions in 16th- and 17th-century Europe, Jewish communities were also seeing a revival of the phenomenon. The symptoms bore many similarities to those manifested by Christian demoniacs, but the Jewish variant, which could take either a malevolent or benevolent form, was attributed to dybbuks , or the souls of the dead returning to inhabit the bodies of the living. Christian theologians had condemned this belief, which can be found in Hellenistic sources of the Hebrew Bible, but Jewish scholars of the cabala revived it in the 12th century as part of the doctrine of the transmigration of souls. Chajes's description of the magical techniques that rabbis used to exorcise these disembodied spirits reveals striking similarities between Jewish and Christian practice.


Brian P. Levack on Possession and Exorcism, interview and article from Not Even Past:

Faculty profile: Brian P. Levack, John E. Green Regents Professor in History; Distinguished Teaching Professor:

The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West (Yale University Press, 2013):

The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America (Oxford University Press, 2013):

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